Saturday, June 8, 2019

Boundless Ocean of Unlimited Possibilities

Sometimes (e.g.) on the internet we angst about the kind of person who likes to DESTROY his enemies with FACTS AND LOGIC AND REASON. Ben Shapiro has become the iconic figurehead of this sort, and not without cause - but that is at least somewhat misleading. Shapiro is prominently a fairly traditional conservative in his politics, but that is not an essential property of the sort. It is not tied to any particular political position so much as a self-characterisation and an aesthetic. The self-characterisation is that of an unbiased objective person who calmly follows (to the best of their abilities, accepting human frailty etc) good principles of rationality to reach conclusions. The aesthetic is that of being very impressed by displays of logical acumen, and very persuaded that one's ideological opponents (whoever they may be) can be set aside with relative ease once the tools of reason are brought to bear against them. This post is my contribution to that genre.

Now, I am a fan of fairly orthodox notions of logical argumentation. I do in fact think it is a good thing to offer arguments which are perspicuously such that there is no way for their premises to be true while their conclusion is false. All the better if you begin from true premises! Just on this blog I have tried to clarify clarity all the better to achieve it, and put a name to an under-recognised fallacy. I have even tried to engage in some ideology-critique-via-argumentative-critique. In short, I think I speak as someone who at least has something in common with the internet logic fans; I am not just a hostile outsider to this phenomenon. In fact one way this sympathy is going to manifest itself in this post is that  I am going to take them seriously that logic is their concern. I think it is plausible that it is genuinely logical ideals they are striving after and which they think bolsters their position. Finally, just a warning, I am going to say less than one might like about the possibility that really what people are implicitly trying to do is offer inductive or abductive arguments rather than deductive ones. Trust me when I say that once one gets to the end one will see it is actually a pleasing act of self-coherence that I leave argumentative possibilities unexplored!

So, after all that set up, and for all my sympathy and similarity to this group, what spurs this post is that I typically find myself totally opposed to the logic fans in aesthetic and self-presentation. Why should this be?

My guess is it comes from a very different idea of what it is that a general improvement in logical acumen would achieve. The internet logic fan imagines that it would often lead to us agreeing on what is true - by contrast, I imagine it would lead to us agreeing on how much we don't know. They imagine it would knock out possibilities, I imagine it would open them up. The rest of this post is just a quick explanation of what I mean here and why I think that.

Logic is, among other things, the study of truth preservation. It gives us tools for discerning when it is that some premises being jointly accepted a conclusion cannot be consistently denied. When an argument has this property of its premises ensuring the truth of its conclusion we say it is valid. One, but certainly not the only (!), thing that is taught in critical thinking classes, and many intro logic classes, is how to analyse "real life" arguments to see if they are valid. For this we often teach students fairly standard means of translating natural language claims into a neat formal language and how to analyse the arguments thus translated. Sometimes we set them loose on arguments drawn from politicians speeches or newspaper articles or what not to see how good they are at this. I think the root of the logic fans' vision for logic DESTROYING their enemies is that with it they shall be making arguments that are valid in this sense. In fact there is usually two sides to this. First, their opponents are shown to be not in the business of arguing at all - what "arguments" they offer are little more than emotive pleas (on that contrast see here). And after that these people are sharply contrasted with the airtight reasoning of a scientifically informed and logically precise debater. They thus envision securing agreement by brushing aside their opponents own perspective, then trapping their enemies in the iron grip of a valid argument, and squeezing conclusions out of them whether they like it or not.

But validity is only the beginning of wisdom, not its end. For evidently mere validity by itself is not very interesting - we should like to know not just this relationship between the premises and the conclusion, but also whether or not the premises are in fact true. (An argument which is valid and has true premises is known as a sound argument - by their nature, sound arguments must have true conclusions.) In fact, even that is not enough - for logic to really be dialectically effective in this sort of way, it must offer us not just sound arguments, but sound arguments with premises that are known or sufficiently well established to be true that one's opponents cannot very well reasonably deny them. And here is where I think the rub lies - I think it is extremely difficult, vanishingly rare in fact, to have arguments which are (i) interesting, (ii) valid, and (iii) possessing premises that are true and established to be so. By (i) I just mean - on the sort of topics that actually concern us in political and social discussion, coming to contentious conclusions about how we should live or arrange our institutions etc. And by (iii) I mean - having premises that are not only true (hard and rare enough in itself in many cases), but are sufficiently well evidenced such that disputants cannot just as reasonably doubt this premise as accept the conclusion.

So to me the more salient tool in the logician's kit is the counter-model. This is the imaginative skill (also taught in intro logic) of coming up with ways the world could be that would satisfy all of the premises while rendering the conclusion false. This shows us possibilities left open by what is established in our premises, sometimes these are ways the world might be that we may not have been inclined to think about were we not set the task of generating a counter-model. When I envision the world wherein logic is better respected, it is a world wherein this skill is more often deployed. For an extended example of such counter-model construction in my work see here. In the present case I think that if we work only from those premises that have been reasonably well established we shall only be left with invalid arguments linking what we know to conclusions that we are interested in. (Further, in point of fact the very great majority of actual arguments offered are invalid.) Logic would thus not operate like a vice holding us and our opponents in place. It would serve more as a constant invitation to use one's imagination, forever reminding us to seek out new possibilities that our all too hasty and prejudicial habits of mind might be inclined to pass over.

The title of this post is drawn from Carnap's Logical Syntax of Language. In the opening to this he gives some metaphilosophical remarks about the sort of thing that logic is. His vision of logic allows for much free play of the intellect. He thus says that having come to appreciate the full range of possibility left open to the logician we are brought to see that "before us lies the boundless ocean of unlimited possibilities". Sail on...

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Perception of Merit

Academia runs on a prestige economy. The opportunities you are afforded and the resources you have access to in very large part depend on your reputation for skill in your chosen field. What is more, we mostly internalise this - we would like not only to do well but to be seen and acknowledged to do well. This latter is considered disreputable and to own to it something of a guilty secret; but it seems to me plainly true that the vast majority of academics would like to be prestigious as can be. Nor does it seem so obviously bad - there is nothing even apparently wrong with wanting people to think well of you, and think well of you (what's more) for contributing to the long quest for knowledge. So why is it so miserable?

Today's post is about that desire for prestige, from the point of view of somebody who struggles with it. It's kinda bad armchair sociology, but (with tongue in cheek please don't hurt me actual sociologists) I mean it to be somewhat phenomenological - this is a report of how things seem to me, so if I am wrong in generalising I am at least giving you a sense of my own anxieties. I just want to think about why this desire for prestige causes so much unhappiness in academia beyond the obvious two reasons: one feels one is prestigious in some way but does not deserve to be, or one feels one deserves to be prestigious in some way but you are not.

I'll need some distinctions (yes I know I should read more Bourdieu, he's on the list). Divide academic reputation up into three types. There is prestige attached to position -- the department one works for, the career stage one is at, whether one has a named chair, just in general the prestige attached to occupying a role. There is prestige attached to achievement -- here I mean prestige attached to publishing, and especially in certain venues, and being cited, or winning awards, or having established priority on some novel discovery of interest, or being known to have given a talk at conferences of sufficiently high standing, etc. Then there is prestige attached to persona -- this one is a bit harder to succinctly summarise with examples, but it happens that one can get a general reputation for skill or brilliance that precedes one's publications or which is not especially attached to any office one holds. An unpublished grad student in a lowly department can none the less have a high reputation if there is a "buzz" around them, and I mean the prestige attached to persona to pick out whatever makes this possible.

It's no secret that there is considerable luck attached to the prestige of position and even much of the prestige of achievement. One of my favourite social epistemology papers is an exploration of how prestige hierarchies (related here most directly to prestige of accomplishment) might come about by sheer luck. More readably here was a nice recent post on one person's personal experience of such luck in attaining prestige of position. One day I should write my own such narrative, for it's just as chancey that I am here. And I have posted on before this has been oft observed by academic sociologists, going back as far as the discipline - with Weber famously saying:
Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If a young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you; without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally one always receives the answer: ``Of course, I live only for my `calling'''. Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.
And contemporary life may have added new ways for this to arise. It seems quite possible, for instance, that being witty on Twitter shall contribute to prestige of persona, despite being only very loosely related (if at all) with any of the things that we should like the perception of merit to track.

I don't think it takes the sociological insight of a Weber (or a Merton or a Du Bois) to notice that luck and prejudice play a considerable role in attaining these various types of prestige. So what prompts this state of affairs is I think this: we all know that the perception of merit is only loosely correlated with anything that we might reasonably be proud of. So while I said above that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be well liked for making useful contributions to the worthy cause of knowledge, I think that much of the anguish surrounding the quest for prestige is actually this sort of epistemic asymmetry - it is much easier to get reliable information that one is doing badly. Someone points out an invalidity in one's argument or mode of statistical analysis, an error in some point of fact, an unintended and evidently morally bad consequence of one's view - such things can often be quickly recognised to be fair when they are so. Whereas to get a reliable signal that one is doing well is very hard. For, in our prestige economy what we largely rely on is other people's estimation that we are doing well and their doling out of such goods as get us the prestige of position or accomplishment. So beyond just first order disagreements with how the prestige hierarchy has shaped up, there is also the constant anxiety of asymmetric uncertainty - the knowledge you are wrong combined with the justified fear that none of the evidence that you are doing well is probative.

Ok but even there - I think the anxiety of this uncertainty is also quickly apparent on reflection so I have probably belaboured the point. What is more, I suspect this worry is overblown. While I think that evidential asymmetry exists, I am also persuaded that one really does (to some extent) make one's own luck, so the fact that one is in a position to get lucky shouldn't be wrote off as mere noise.

What I think might be less obvious is the way the different types of prestige interact to create anxiety. Here is my suspicion: prestige of the person is the least worthy and most desirable of types of prestige in the credit economy. Least worthy because - it is most likely to be unrelated to merit or accomplishment, and what we want (or, rather, want to want) is to be lovable based on actual merit or accomplishment. But most desirable of types of prestige for two reasons. First, I suspect it is easiest to convert into the other types of prestige. Someone with a buzz around them gains an advantage in getting a job, their work is received in a more excited and charitable fashion, and they will be approached at workshops and conferences and so have more of a chance to actually get feedback and develop their ideas. Second, it has a certain intrinsic quality which the other two lack. I suspect the underlying phenomenology of desire is that one wants a fancy chair or fancy publication because it will lead to people thinking of you as fancy - whereas there need not be any deeper reason to want people to think well of you just in your person. Here I am leaning most especially on phenomenology: it just seems to make sense to me to want to have a positive aura or buzz around one's person in a way that it seems odd to me to want a Nature publication just for its own sake. So that is another reason I think the quest for prestige is miserable - in our hearts we know we want the wrong thing.

I have been thinking of this as an Audenite reading of the credit economy of science, because for some reason it reminds me of some lines from September 1, 1939:

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Something about this desire to stand out being simultaneously widely shared and shameful resonates. It is the academic version of original sin. We find ourselves with a desire for credit or esteem. There are easily available to us nearby rationales for this which might be reputable - we want to achieve great things (prestige of accomplishment) and to have the community reflect that when allocating awards (prestige of position). But we suspect of ourselves that, actually, we don't want anything so noble - we just want a contentless positive buzz (prestige of persona) and know there is no excuse. Not universal love, but to be loved alone.

Anyway, if this is right, maybe the more apt lines from Auden come elsewhere in the poem. He has our number in academia, at least, when he worries that...

... we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Taking a Break

I have been a very online philosopher. I have kept this blog, I was very active on Facebook,  I was very active on Twitter. I like this blog a lot. But I eventually left Facebook because it stopped being fun for me. And I am not sure I can still be on Twitter anymore either. Along with the part of me that really wants to engage with the world, there's another part that really wants to withdraw. For fear that this latter part of me wants to withdraw too far and represents some of my darker thoughts, I have tended to suppress it. I think it's time to give it the reigns for a while. Maybe this won't last more than a day (I've tried to quit social media before and lasted around 24 hours) but I want to at least give it a go. So, it's been real, and I am sure I will be back sooner or later, but for now - a break.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Carnap Did Nothing Wrong!

This is a post about what it means to have a fave, a philosopher one likes and identifies with and champions. Spurred by the fact that folk on twitter pointed out that more people will hear of Carnap though my social media promotional efforts than actually read him. (Incidentally, the rumour mill has it that Kristie Dotson has in production a paper on philosophy as a fandom, so watch that space!) But first a note on how I got here. Back in the day I used to always say #NoHeroes and had various arguments against the role of hero worship in academia and intellectual practice. I thought (and in fact still think) that it is bad for scholarship and the way we organise ourselves as a discipline that some figures gain such high stature in the prestige economy of our discipline. For instance, people become overly charitable to their views, and thus come to misrepresent them or fail to acknowledge clear reason to reject their claims - and we thereby lose out on valuable sources of intellectual diversity.

But because I became so associated with this (and it had a catchy hashtag!) I started having people tag me every time their second cousin got the third runners up prize in the sub regional 8th divisional 4th place quarter finals for the national spelling bee. They'd say "So proud of little Chadwick! Sorry Liam <tag>, but it seems like there are some heroes after all!!!!!!!1!!111!!!ELEVEN!!1!!" Then (I imagine) they would spend the next week or so high fiving all their friends and calling up their grandparents to tell them about this delightful witticism they just put out there. Obviously this was intolerable, so I totally dropped the hashtag, and memed my way out of it by conspicuously coming to like and identify with Carnap. This has worked pretty well and now I don't get that anymore. In fact, once at a conference I met some people who only knew me from twitter; we'd all had a bit to drink, so I said "Who did nothing wrong?" then in unison everyone shouted "Carnap!" So, why Carnap? That's what this post is about.

Because, here's the thing, when it comes to the philosophical positions he spent most time developing, I don't actually agree much with Carnap on substance nor do I work on the same project as him. His work on the semantics of modal logic was certainly historically important but it has been quite appropriately supplanted by Kripke's approach. The project of the Aufbau is in some sense beautiful and impressive - but as far as I can tell it has, again, been set aside on good grounds, and I am not pursuing its contemporary analogues. I have a lot of respect for the people working on inductive logic (which definitely has direct links to the historical Carnap's project) but I haven't followed it in enough detail to know exactly what of Carnap's has been kept and where I agree. I actively disagree with the view of race I gleaned from him and others. I love the nameless-station railway map metaphor for structuralism that Carnap came up with, but I'm not invested one way or another in the view. I am more sympathetic than most to Carnap's later verificationism, but even there (as I have wrote previously) I think Carnap never did a good job of explaining why exactly one should believe it and how exactly it is to be applied in its own case.

The one place where I am more directly sympathetic and it affects what I do is a cluster of views around Carnapian tolerance. In the Logical Syntax of Language Carnap says:
In logic, there are no morals. Everyone is at liberty to build his own logic, i. e. his own form of language, as he wishes. All that is required of him is that, if he wishes to discuss it, he must state his methods clearly, and give syntactical rules instead of philosophical arguments.
He even backs up this easy going tolerance with some rather stirring words:
The first attempts to cast the ship of logic off from the terra firma of the classical forms were certainly bold ones, considered from the historical point of view. But they were hampered by the striving after ‘correctness’. Now, however, that impediment has been overcome, and before us lies the boundless ocean of unlimited possibilities.
This basic attitude of tolerance for conceptual exploration and engineering, and pragmatism in matters of application, is then related to a broader metaphilosophical perspective most famously outlined here. Scholars have done much interesting work on the principle of tolerance, and the related engineering projects. Here I do substantially agree, I have given various talks promoting the idea, and have tried to work in this vein in some of my publications. However, at best, that means I relate to Carnap as someone who I thought had a great Big Idea but who never really applied it in ways I find correct or relevant.

None the less, I like him a lot. And I think the three main reasons I like him are pretty similar to the reasons you get a lot of the bizarre hero worship of the humanities. Firstly and most boringly, he just seems to have been a basically quite admirable human being. As far as I can tell his experience of the trenches in world war one radicalised him, and from that moment on he was consistently on the side of the angels. He spent the latter years of the war spreading thinly veiled pacifist propaganda (he only narrowly escaped getting in quite serious trouble for this), then a supporter of the socialist opposition to the war - the commitment to socialism was then lifelong. He was an anti-Nazi when that counted, this is the only-now-coming-to-be-appreciated context for his famous anti-Heidegger polemic. Then when he came to the US he got involved as a supporter of the the black civil rights movement. He was a consistent opponent of the various imperialist wars the united states was involved in in the mid 20th century, and a proponent of renouncing nuclear weapons. He quite bravely (at some cost to himself) refused to take the McCarthyist loyalty oaths universities implemented. (The FBI actually started spying on him and kept a file on him - I've read what's available here, and it seems they basically concluded he was too much of a head-in-the-clouds professor to actually be any serious threat, lol). There are stories of him standing up to professors bullying students at Chicago that are in the air in the philosophical community, and he apparently once went out of his way to save a student from homelessness. I once spent some time looking at the material on him in the Carnap archive at Pittsburgh university, and it seems that towards the end of his life he was gathering material on the Angela Davis controversy, I think with an eye to supporting her case to administration. His last publication was a letter of solidarity for Mexican political prisoners and a hope that a leftward turn in US immigration policy that would allow refugees in. There's no sense denying that - I just find this to be an admirable person, I think a lot of the reason Carnap was initially attractive to me was just that being a kind of introverted techy nerd who none the less has these rather leftist philosophical positions obviously speaks to me on a personal level. (It's maybe relevant that Wiredu and Condorcet are other philosophers I like, who seem relevantly similar on this front.)

Secondly, there's a kind of aesthetic appreciation. There's a quip about Carnap whose origins I forget that says that he was someone who had Frege on the study desk and Nietzsche by the bedside table. (There's a good paper here exploring this element of his persona and how it played out in his work.) And I really like that, the idea of connecting up this very dry, clear, technical style, with a deeper existentially informed perspective. In another of those stirring passages, this time from the Aufbau, Carnap says:
We feel that there is an inner kinship between the attitude on which our philosophical work is founded and the intellectual attitude which currently manifests itself in entirely different walks of life; we feel this orientation in artistic movements, especially in architecture, and in movements which strive for meaningful forms of personal and collective life, of education, and of external organisations in general.  We feel all around us the same basic orientation, the same style of thinking and doing.  It is an orientation which demands clarity everywhere, but which realizes that the fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.  I makes us pay careful attention to detail and at the same time recognizes the great lines which run through the whole.  It is an orientation which acknowledges the bonds which tie people together, but at the same time strives for free development of the individual.  Our work is carried by the faith that this attitude will win the future.
I got the quote from here, which also has a couple of other similar passages quoted. Of course, it defeats the whole object to try and simply state the full content of the underlying attitude. The idea is that it must show itself in one's bearing towards life, other people, and the problems one faces. But I think I have some grasp of what is at stake, and it is indeed attractive to me, and I try and live up to it. I'll note that this is why I think the metaphilosophy in Carnap appeals to me more than his particular views - it is the attitude it embodies rather than the specifics of what he said that I find philosophically admirable.

Third, there is a certain sort of error which I think will be familiar to both scientists and humanists but which is hard to explain. Some errors just seem to one to be fruitful, the sort of mistakes one feels that it was well worth one's time to think through and diagnose even as one is quite confident they are mistaken, in order to better calibrate one's own view. I often see or hear humanists use the locution "thinking with X", and inevitably the name that substitutes in for "X" is someone who I think they don't agree with but who they feel they have benefited from looking at their thoughts on a topic of interest. Whereas I think that this felt experience is a lot of the psychological basis for the frequency with which scientists will say that they find Popperian falsificationism an intuitive philosophy of science. Carnap's errors very frequently seem to me of this sort. I think he did a bad job of explaining and defending verificationism, but I think it has been very useful to me to think about why and how this relates to my own empiricist sensibilities. As far as I can tell it is consensus among historians of logic that his work on modal logic was of just this sort when considered from a communal perspective. The Aufbau was plausibly influential in the development of early AI research. As I said, I think about structuralism in a way that is guided by Carnap's fundamental picture of it, even while I don't actually know whether I agree or disagree! So inducting from all this, when I see a new Carnap piece to read I tend to be excited, since I anticipate getting more of this sort of fruitful error.

So that's Carnap for me. Someone I think was either wrong or just working on things I don't think much about for the most part. But with whom I feel a kind of aspirational moral identification, who I have this somewhat cringey aesthetic appreciation for, and who I think was, like, wrong about everything but... in a cool way. I suspect that my own reasons for finding Carnap so impressive are similar for people who are specialists in other individual figures, or generally fans and describe themselves as "X-ians" for their fave as X. I think reflecting on this explicitly does two things. First, there is a common mistake in popular discourse about teaching in the humanities that would have it that if we teach a class on ABC it is because we wish students to come to accept ABC or glorify the progenitors of ABC. My strong experience is that this is not the case, and a good illustration is that even when we humanists base our teaching on our faves there's often a lot of disagreement. Second, and somewhat in tension, I think that while this is easy to hold in mind during moments of high explicit reflection (like during teaching or when engaged in metaphilosophical blog posts!) in practice it becomes difficult to separate out an intellectual figure from their views. In some heated contexts people become defensive for their faves in a way that can make it natural to defend the content of their views - hence, probably, the impression of the humanities just mentioned, corroding effects of hero worship, and #NoHeroes.

Rudolf Carnap - the title was promising but
I was less keen on the main body of text.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

On Eurocentrism

I write this as someone who is largely a consumer rather than producer of the sort of work I am going to critique. I am confident that what I say will sound obvious in theory and is no doubt something people training to comparative philosophers are quite aware of - but since I am a frequent consumer I am also confident that it is frequently violated in practice even if theoretically people know better. As ever, I don't like to link to negative exemplars, so if you don't believe me on that point I am happy for us to just disagree about the existence of the tendency I here bemoan.

So here is a thing I see a lot of in articles introducing English speakers to some form of philosophy that is not typically studied by English speaking philosophy students.  (I am going to say "non-mainstream-Western" philosophy, but only because I don't know a better way of referring to the class I have in mind, that's not a great term either.) Maybe it's philosophy in pre-modern Japan, maybe it is contemporary philosophy among either a particular Canadian indigenous group or an interrelated set thereof, maybe it is Maya philosophy across the ages... whatever. I see a lot of this because I actively seek such work out - I think it is great, under-appreciated, and has immeasurably enriched my philosophical and personal life. So naturally I am going to complain about it.

Well, a particular tendency therein! Because such works frequently lead with or place greatest emphasis upon what I at this point think of as the stereotyped non-Western-philosophy list: people in <school or group under study> reject(ed) strict mind body dualism, and in particular they understand/ood knowledge in a more engaged or embodied fashion, they thought/think that some sort of communal validation processes were very important for a person to be said to know. Now, I don't doubt that indeed people around the world in various schools of thought hold all these positions. In fact, I hold all these positions, so suits me very well to learn that I am part of a vast global majority. But I am suspicious none the less of the role the stereotyped non-Western philosophy list plays in this genre. This blog post is about why.

I think that the high prevalence of this list is evidence of two sorts of Eurocentrism which are pervasive even among people who are striving earnestly to avoid it. The first sort comes from considering the question: why are these things highlighted in particular? After all, there are usually distinctive beliefs about God or gods, about what happens upon death, about what exactly one's moral duties are, about exactly what things are made of... which might be thought to be just as significant and occupy as or more central a role in the belief systems under question.

I think, instead, the stereotyped non-Western philosophy list is given pride of place exactly because: the widespread elite Protestant uptake of something like Cartesianism is distinctive of the West, so its a marker of being generally not Western that nothing like that viewpoint really gained traction therein. That is to say, its pride of place in so many different works on non-mainstream-Western philosophy in fact reflects a fact about the West, namely that this bizarre doctrine of us as tenuously connected ghosts in a machine engaged in dispassionate private ratiocination ever gained any traction among an influential section of society here.  And like a Derridean trace, those people are somehow still setting the agenda even when we try and look away to see what other people have been up to.

Why do I think this? Well I don't really have good evidence for it, that's why I am putting it on my blog post and avoiding peer review with its pesky requirement that I do actual scholarship. But basically what makes me think it is just how many different pieces of non-mainstream-Western philosophy make such a point of saying this ain't them - which of course is circular in this context. But still, this is how it now seems to me. It is, apparently, normal, the globally done thing, to reject the quasi-Cartesian idea - that the rejection still seems remarkable enough for everyone to place such great weight upon it reflects the fact that they are tethering their sense of what is normal or remarkable against the intellectual habits of a small elite section of mainstream Western thinkers.

The second thing I think is behind this is a filter somewhat introduced by me. Namely, that I am reading things in English and aimed at English speakers. This places a kind of filter on the educational path of those I read; they need to have had at least some training in philosophy in English, yet they have decided to focus on non-(mainstream-Western) philosophy. My sense is that it just so happens that the kind of person who does this (far from always, but in proportions far out of line with their prevalence in the philosophical community) has some sympathy for a kind of neo-Romantic viewpoint. They are closer to being heirs to the tradition of Herder and Heidegger than Condorcet and Carnap. This is in and of itself fine (I like Herder a lot!) but means that one of the bad things about the principle of charity is especially salient in the case.

The principle of charity homogenises in cases where interpreters agree about what would be good. It tells one to interpret texts in such a way as to make their claims plausible and coherent so far as is consistent with what is made explicit, maybe conditional on what evidence or information would have been available to the text author. But if we all agree on what would be plausible it thereby introduces a constraint on interpretation which "pulls in the same direction" for all those involved. The principle of charity might be hermeneutically necessary to at least some degree, and in cases where the type of philosophy is marginalised and one seeks to gain an audience for it, or one identifies with it and feels it hasn't been given a fair shot, it is even more tempting to be particularly charitable. So this is hard to avoid.

But then I look at the stereotyped Non-Western philosophy list and I can't help but notice another thing - it's a rejection of things that contemporary heirs to the Romantic tradition hate. Fair enough, they are trying to draw out what seems to them best in the texts they are interpreting, and its my linguistic inadequacies which introduced the filter. But still, in the end, this focus, that this seems like the most salient positive achievement of the school or group under study - it still seems to me to be a reflection of disputes in contemporary mainstream Western philosophy.  (Or at least recent contemporary, at this point I think they are somewhat caricaturing their opponents.) I am not fully persuaded the focus reflects the priority or agenda of those either being studied or whose worldview is being represented,  rather than the schedule of priorities of those in contemporary academia. It just seems like too much of a coincidence.

So in at least two ways I think that elite mainstream-Western philosophers are subtly driving the agenda of works of philosophy that aren't meant to be focussed on them. What do I think is the upshot of this? It surely can't be that people should stop taking note of the fact that people in <school or group under study> reject(ed) strict mind body dualism, and in particular they understand/ood knowledge in a more engaged or embodied fashion, they thought/think that some sort of communal validation processes were very important for a person to be said to know. If only because it is apparently just demonstrably true that people around the world and across time tend to do this, and that is surely a very strong constraint on what interpreters can say!

Rather, I have this much more diffuse and useless plea. (Well ok one useful plea: get your hands on Wiredu's "How Not to Compare African Thought With Western Thought" and give it a read!) Somehow we must do better at setting our own agenda. The vast majority of us are not in the very narrow band of people who ever found the thing being reacted against that tempting. Sure they were a disproportionately politically and intellectually influential group, and once we needed to prove ourselves against them. But we're here now, we have at least enough of a foothold in places where we have the time and resources to do our own intellectual work without needing to constantly prove ourselves against this obsolete idea. It's high time we take charge of our own intellectual lives.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A Quick Plea For Interdisciplinary Peace

Here's an interesting blog post I recommend you read. It's about why people end up science denialists. I am going to be pedantic about it and complain, but I will later explain why I still recommend reading it despite these complaints. Near the start there's some conceptual analysis, which I quote at length:

"In social science, the concept of belief describes a statement that people think is either true or false. Beliefs are deep rooted because they evolve from early socialisation. They are maintained tacitly through everyday interactions with our primary social networks like family, religious communities, and through close friendships with people from the same socio-economic backgrounds. Beliefs are hard (though not impossible) to change because there is a strong motivation to protect what we believe. Beliefs are strongly tied to personal identities, culture and lifestyle. Beliefs are harder to change in a short frame time because they’re interconnected to structures of power and inequality. Chipping away at one belief means re-evaluating all beliefs we hold about what is “true,” “natural,” and “normal.”
Beliefs are hard to justify objectively because they represent the social scaffolding of all we take for granted. In this meaning, beliefs represent the status quo of what we’re willing to accept. The key to understanding why beliefs are hard to shift comes down to one question: Who benefits from this belief?"

Take an example of a statement that one might think true or false. Say (as in fact just happened, I write from the Granta pub in Cambridge!)  a bar tender tells me "That'll be 2.70" after I order my drink. Then, trusting sort that I am, I think the price of my goods is £2.70 and thus that their statement is true. Ok so it is a belief, per the opening definition. But suppose (as did not happen in this case, but has in others!)  they then say "Tell a lie, it's 2.80" then I usually immediately revise my belief and pay up because, like, whatever people make such small mistakes all the time.

So here we have a statement held to be true (i.e. belief) that was easy to change in a short time frame, that I was not strongly motivated to protect, not really that strongly tied to personal identity, and admitted of relatively isolated revision without really calling into doubt many of my other beliefs about what is true, certainly nothing about what I believe is natural and normal. I am not sure whether it is hard to justify objectively, but that is mainly because I am not sure what objective justification is. I guess I benefited from the earlier belief that it was 2.70 compared to my later revised belief, but probably this interaction is pretty impersonal and neither me nor the barkeep think too hard about it nor really feel we benefit much either way (I guess if I actually agree to the trade then maybe it's beneficial to me in the economists sense that I think I'd rather have the drink than the £2.80 so benefit from learning it to be available at that price).

So it seems that the conceptual analysis of belief went pretty badly wrong - it instantly made a bunch of false predictions about a very simple instance of the phenomenon it picked out! What happened here?

Well, it's obvious what happened. The author did not have things like this in mind, even if they are technically covered under 'a statement people think is true or false'. The examples used in the post are beliefs about things like the sources and nature of gender differences,  or regarding the safety of GM foods. Beliefs about such matters plausibly will have many or all of the features picked out. Hence I still recommend reading the post because I think it brings up interesting things about science communication on those matters, which are the real topic.

So why my pedantry? Because I think this is the number one source of miscommunication between bits of the intellectual world that I want to bring together and so it is useful for me to have my thoughts on it set down. So next time I encounter this I am just going to link to this blog post and say "Look, this is that thing happening again!"

You see, I work on the social epistemology of science, which means I read quite a lot of sociology of science. I also read a lot of analytic philosophy of science. And, like, the two groups don't get along. And I constantly have to explain to the other lot what the previous bunch are up to. And, like, it's tiring. It's not actually that hard to see what's going on here - if you're an analytic resist the temptation to pedantry and just take on board the obvious intended point, if you're in sociology of science maybe try and not say false things when a quick scope restriction ("the kind of beliefs I have in mind are those which...") would have solved the whole thing. We can all do better, and we can all get along.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Logic versus Social Justice Activists

Let me tell you upfront that I don't intend this to be endorsed. The point of the exercise is to see if it sounds to you as plausible as similar narratives you have heard in other cases. So it's a kind of satire, I guess, but the goal isn't at all to mock or to be funny. (It's also me trying my hand at something kinda like the ideological Turing test - but not quite, since after all I don't think people actually do run this particular argument.) If I have done my job correctly, this will seem to you about as plausible as other elements of the popular Everything Changed When The SJs Attacked genre. In this genre one talks about how a once proud tradition of Western achievement in the arts or humanities has been ruined by the advent of social justice scholarship or activism. I don't like linking to negative exemplars where I don't have to - so if you are unfamiliar with the genre or think it doesn't exist, just consider the plausibility of this on its own terms; my goal is that it should seem roughly plausible to somebody who is outside philosophical logic. I will say a bit on what I take from it at the end. But, first, the satire:

Logic is under attack in the contemporary academy. By this point readers are no doubt aware of the repeated assaults on Reason as a patriarchal tool of Western domination, or however it is the Social Justice Activists (SJAs) express their grievances nowadays. So perhaps it was inevitable that logic itself would come under attack from those who seek to politicise every aspect of our lives. But it can still be instructive to see how an apparently objective and neutral, mathematical, field like logic can fall prey to the regressive leftism sweeping the academy. If you understand this, you'll understand how even the hard sciences won't remain safe from SJAs in their bitter struggle against the Enlightenment and our Western tradition.

Like so much of our intellectual heritage, the story of logic begins in ancient Greece, especially Athens. Already it had been discovered that a culture of vigorous debate was essential for preparing people for life in a democracy. From this experience of debate people began to notice that there were certain rules which could guarantee victory. Suppose, for instance, your opponent granted that either A or B, but was concerned to deny that C. It turns out that if you could argue that if A was true then C must be true and also that if B was true then C must be true, then your opponent could be forced to admit that therefore C must be true! Things like this were useful to know, if you are a lawyer looking to make their name before the courts of the new democracy.

But useful as such debaters tricks may be, and as with so many fields, the first leap into real science was made by Aristotle. He had the foresight to see that a few simple rules could underlie all of our reasoning. And while much of the specifics of what he said has since been updated, the core axioms he discovered still underlie rational thought. What are those axioms?

  1. The law of identity: everything is identical with itself.
  2. The law of non-contradiction: there are no true contradictions, a claim and its negation cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense.
  3. The law of excluded middle: either a statement is true or its negation is true, there is no other option for a claim besides being true or false.
These apparently trivial observations form the foundation of our reasoning to this day. At any given time and place, it is either raining or not raining. If it is raining, then it cannot (in the same sense and at the same time and in the same place) be not raining. And that rain? It's rain! Seems clear, right? Well what Aristotle showed was that if you took these as axioms one could lay down a system of rules that codified all logical reasoning. All proofs, all chains of argumentation, could be rationalised by these axioms. 

Take our simple debaters rule above - what explains why that works? Well, suppose we know that A is true or B is true, and in either case that C is true. Then if C were not true while A or B was true, we would have a contradiction - since we have just granted that it is also true in that case. But by Aristotle's second law, we cannot have a contradiction, so C must be true and not false. And by Aristotle's third law, there are no other cases to consider - so C is just true, as one's opponent was concerned to deny! The debater's trick now stands on a firm scientific basis, rationalised by Aristotle's laws.

Guided by these laws we have seen centuries of progress. Especially after the 19th century, when it was finally discovered how we might integrate classical logic with algebra and other branches of mathematics. Such intellectual giants as Frege and Gentzen built upon these foundations to create. This culminated in the invention of the computer; that's right, dear reader, it was Aristotle's work that made it possible for you to read my words. An interested reader can check out the excellent Logicomix if they want to read about Bertrand Russell's contribution in particular. This is not the time to enter into these achievements, but suffice it to say that for all the advances made in logic, this tradition never abandoned the insights of Aristotle's three laws.

That is, not until the SJAs turned their attention to logic. While there had been rumblings of discontent before, it was the work of Michael Dummett that launched one of the 20th century's most sustained attacks on Aristotle's laws. Dummett's target of ire was the third law. Why, he thought, should we believe that statements are always either true or false? What if a claim was such that we could neither prove nor disprove it - what grounds could we then have to call it true or false? Such were Dummett's questions, and they might seem reasonable, until one realises the incipient subjectivism that underlies them.

Why should our capacities to prove or disprove things decide what is true? Aristotle had believed in objectivity, and so made a bold stand for reality over subjectivity when he said that claims are always either true or false - regardless of what we do or do not know. Aristotle was, one could say, the first to note that facts do not care about our feelings. Whereas Dummett, in line with what is typical of today's grievance studies "scholars", thought that it was our perspective on reality that decided what was true, and so called for yet more "constructivism" in logic. The result was a denial of Aristotle's third law. Rather than even countenance realism, Dummett the noted anti-racist activist tried to change logic itself to better suit his subjective sense of what is possible.

Perhaps emboldened by this brazen attack on the foundations of Western thought, things have only got worse since then. It may seem obvious that one would not want to endorse a contradiction - and indeed it should be obvious! But, despite the repeated failures of communism, culminating in the on going tragedy in Venezuela we see today, a number of logicians decided to try and put a "human face" on the typically irrationalist idea from Marx that some contradictions are true. This kind of politicised logic is now typical, with recent work by these logicians embracing the feminist anti-logic agenda. Of course this open embrace of communist contradictions has only opened the flood gate to more irrationalism. Forwarding the diversity agenda, some contradiction mongers even ask us to take on board exotic metaphysical ideas drawn from Buddhism. One shudders to think of what the intersectionalists will do with the law of identity, once they get around to it.

Rampant subjectivism, an obsession with multiculturalism and anti-racism, tacit sympathy for communism despite enjoying the privileges of capitalist wealth and freedom. These are the tools of the grievance studies "scholar", and now they're assaulting the foundations of logic.

Besides demonstrating that even rigorous mathematical fields are not safe from SJAs, it's worth noting that these things have a wider corrupting effect. We start seeing academics write articles attempting to invoke guilt by association with the irrelevant politics of logical pioneers. When academics try and raise questions about the SJA role in logic that come from outside the grievance studies consensus they are attacked and mocked on prominent blogs. You would think that philosophers and logicians of all people would discuss their disagreements, but SJAs always prefer to use shame to silence dissent - perhaps all the more so when they are attacking the proper standards of logical discussion itself! And the corruption doesn't just stay in the academy, as they seek to push their anti-classical thinking on undergraduates, and there are popular articles denouncing Aristotle's laws as to blame for all our modern ills.

One can see why the SJAs are so keen to dominate logic. For, logic is a tool that takes us from premises to conclusions. Already in the social sciences the SJAs have gained effective control over what premises we are allowed to take seriously. If only they controlled logic, then they would also control what inferences we can draw from their ideological premises. They would hence be able to choose our starting place and the destinations available to us. Their domination of intellectual life would thus be unassailable, and we could say goodbye to freedom of inquiry, and the practical benefits like computing which have arisen from it in the past.

How did it come to this? How did we allow a logical tradition that has underpinned western science and given us the marvels of modern computing technology come to be spurned by these brazen irrationalists? It is because we in the West have lost confidence in our own reason. Rather than being willing to stand up for objective reality, like Aristotle once did, we now let the SJAs dictate to us their subjective absurdities. But there's nothing racist about standing up for objective truth, and there's nothing misogynistic about clear logical reasoning. The SJAs wish to unhinge us from reality, their ultimate goal is an anything goes logical anarchism - only in that way could they push their irrationalist agenda through. They're not yet at the point where they can openly proclaim this, but if we don't act to defend Reason now they might soon be. We should stop being ashamed of what is best in our tradition, we should stand up for logic.

Not all of the above is wrong. Aristotle really did make huge advances in logic, amongst which was explicitly formulating his famous three laws. (Like... I think? Please don't hurt me, Aristotle scholars.) For obvious reasons, people who have liked paraconsistent logics have also tended to be more sympathetic to the idea from Marxist-Hegelianism that reality as it now stands is characterised by true contradictions. There's a real intellectual link there, and likewise between this and greater sympathy for Buddhist metaphysics. At one point I link to a Nye book, calling it part of the feminist anti-logic agenda: it really is feminist, it really is anti-logic, and it's really not very good. The popular article denouncing Aristotle's binary thinking is also (as far as I can tell) real, and also not very good. These latter two evince the more general point: there really does exist some hostility to formal logic in some parts of the broad-academic-left, and often this hostility is somewhat poorly informed by actual knowledge of logic.

All the same, this was not a maximally sympathetic job, and nor was it intended to be. I didn't want to Steelman my opponents, but present them as they are, foibles and all. So the history isn't entirely wrong, but it's simplistic, over-claims on behalf of its heroes, and gets some of the details wrong. There's some innuendo - sure Dummett was an anti-racist campaigner and he did indeed attack the law of excluded middle, but there is no good grounds for suggesting that the one influenced the other! Restall's work is linked to the Nye in being part of the very broad cluster of feminist philosophy, but beyond that there's not much connecting them. It's not fair to say biographical interest in Frege is guilt by association, it's just true that some of the pioneers had noxious politics. At some point it lapses into vague praise and sacrifices a proper understanding of the topic matter for it. Identifying logic per se with the particular way of understanding things the author prefers is a cheap rhetorical trick, yet underlies the article's claim that logic is under attack. The enthusiasm for the idea of a continuous western tradition leads to very significant differences being papered over. In all these ways I think this is typical of the genre.

And these (especially the errors in detail) make it tempting for scholars to reply in a certain way, typical of our training and temperament. The exposition of Aristotle's laws confused bivalence with excluded middle! Aristotle's opinion on the excluded middle is actually quite nuanced! Classical logic isn't a straightforward extension of syllogistic! Convenient that you skipped over all the Arabic contributions to the history of logic! Dummett's constructivism actually wasn't that subjectivist really though that depends on how one interprets... and so on. I am not above this. But it somewhat misses the point.

For the more important point is surely that this is just a faintly absurd picture of what it is like to think or discuss logic in the contemporary academy. One is, of course, welcome to discuss the potential social impact of various ways of thinking, or its connections to broader metaphysical perspectives. As it should be! But one doesn't have to do this, and it'll go fine for you if you simply ignore all that and focus on one's favourite nerdy esoterica. This too is as it should be. Further, it would have been a huge hinderance to productive research if we were actually so deferential to the tradition and its greats as such articles typically are. As I noted in my anti-table screed, progress requires that we challenge traditions and explore counter-intuitive ideas. More broadly, the idea that the dominant way of doing things, still taught to undergrads by default, is under siege from a dedicated band of conspiratorial anti-logic SJs is just... ridiculous. It's silly.

The real underlying problem here is one familiar to social epistemologists as the Novice/2 Expert Problem. The narrative I spun above contains enough truth, and its errors are sufficiently subtle, that I think if I were totally outside philosophical logic it would seem about as plausible to me as its denials. Of course a bunch of insiders would come along and angrily dispute it - but that would often seem like quibbling, and in any case didn't it tell me to expert that SJA orthodoxy tries to silence dissent? It would be a credulous and servile rule to say that all such critiques should be distrusted - institutional capture by bad actors is perfectly possible, and it may sometimes be that only outsider critique of this form can hold them to account. As I said, I don't think pieces in this genre are typically entirely devoid of truth, and some may contain more truth than falsehood. Ultimately in such cases, faced with pieces in this genre disputed by insiders, I am forced as a non-expert to do one of two things. I can embrace scepticism and say that I will refuse to either trust the logicians or the critics; and thus, in this case and some others, lower my trust in what is actually a fairly well functioning academic field. Or I can pick between experts in a fashion I am unqualified to do responsibly. Short of becoming an expert myself, there are no good options.